Did you know that you listen with cultural ears and see with cultural eyes? What I mean by that is that how you interpret what is being said or written has been culturally conditioned. When listening and seeing you not only decipher the meaning of the words but you also interpret the tone of voice, body language and sentence form. I call those four elements — content, tone, body language, form — the dance of language. No matter what language is being used, you are always interpreting the dance from your own cultural point of view.
Within an intercultural context, who has the “right” interpretation? A vocal tone that is heard as negative in one culture may be positive in another. A gesture or facial expression that is interpreted as openness in one culture may appear closed in another. A sentence form that signals collaboration in one culture may be heard as too authoritative in another. And so on. I find that this interpretative nature of listening is something many of my clients habitually fail to be aware of. Listening with cultural ears and seeing with cultural eyes is often the root cause of intercultural communication problems.
Similar things happen during a phone call or while reading an email. During a phone call, interpreting body language is replaced by interpreting only the tone of voice. In an email you also interpret tonality, even if it is impossible to know what tone the sender actually intended. For example, have you ever noticed yourself reacting positively to what you interpret as a friendly, relaxed tone on the phone or in an email? On the other hand, how do you react to what you interpret as a disrespectful or unfriendly tone? Even with longer documents, such as a report or a proposal, you interpret and respond in similar ways.
To listen with intercultural ears and see with intercultural eyes means to limit your interpretations to content and to ignore tone, body language and form, which I admit takes practice. I help my clients do that by focusing on the speech act that is being expressed. They learn to set aside cultural preconceptions about what is the “right” or “wrong” way of asking, offering, promising, declaring or expressing an opinion. When you know how to simplify communication in that way, you can be the one helping, rather than hindering, intercultural communication. You gradually become a highly effective intercultural communicator who listens with intercultural ears and sees with intercultural eyes.